Homage to Catatonia

A Loving Catalog of Orphaned Ideas.

Detective Story #12 — The Parable of the Assassin

“A long time ago,” I began, “there was a man who so thoroughly despised one of his associates that he came to view him as an enemy and desire his death. With time, these dark feelings reached such a pitch that he approached a shady colleague who gave him the names of several assassins.”

Most versions of the parable specify the number of assassins (usually three) and many name the characters, especially the assassins. I’ve never seen the value of giving too many specifics when telling parables or jokes. It is impossible to know what associations a name will have for your readers or listeners. You also run the risk of inadvertently giving a character the same name as someone in your audience. The number of assassins is usually given as three in order to set up a Goldilocks scenario where the first two assassins describe methods and fees that are too extreme for the the man’s purpose in opposing ways. The first assassin, for instance, charges less but uses a gun or, worse still, a bomb; the second assassin, meanwhile, uses an untraceable poison but charges too much. This device has always struck me as old-fashioned and at odds with the essence of the parable.

“The man spoke to the assassins, asking about their fees and methods. He was not a wealthy man but he wanted the assassination to be subtle. The man’s hatred was deep but he wanted to escape punishment and any feelings of responsibility. Ideally, the death should appear natural. At the very least it should not be sordid. At last, he settled on the least expensive of the assassins who, despite charging much less than the others, guaranteed that the death would not raise suspicion. The assassin’s only condition was that he be allowed to set his own timeline. The man, who had achieved a certain satisfaction by acting on his wish to have his associate killed, did not especially care when the assassination occurred. ‘It will happen soon enough,’ the assassin promised.”

At this point many versions include some dialogue between the man and the assassin, the man asking what the assassin’s weapon will be and the assassin answering in the language of a riddle: “My weapon is quieter than a gun, sharper than a stiletto, subtler than poison, and more certain than all of these.” Or something along those lines. Another unnecessary flourish, in my opinion, that draws attention to a mystery that, if the story is told well,  should only be hinted at.

“The man waited but his enemy lived on. Months went by but the man’s enemy seemed to go on living his life in the usual way. Finally, the man contacted the assassin and asked whether he had made any progress (asking politely, of course, for it is best to be polite to assassins). The assassin answered that fulfillment of the contract was on schedule but did not offer any other details. Years passed and the man’s enemy — so it seemed to the man — not only continued to live but seemed to be thriving. But the man’s own life had improved as well and one day he realized that the anger he felt towards his old enemy had dissipated. He contacted the assassin again and, when they met, asked him to cancel the contract: ‘I no longer bear any ill will towards the man I hired you to kill. The offensive actions that prompted me to desire his death now seem mere trifles. Some have even proven to been to my benefit. I am asking you now to cancel our contract.’ The assassin said nothing.”

Here I decided to add an exchange my father always included when he told the parable as a sort of tribute to his mentor:

“‘I see now that this was the purpose behind your delay: you used myeagerness to see this man killed to force me to pay attention to his life. By delaying his death you forced me to appreciate his life and to understand that my own anger was fleeting and petty. You have saved me from the consequences of my own anger and I thank you. I would like to reward you with a bonus.’

“The assassin nodded but his eyes showed no sign of agreement. He said, ‘You mistake me, sir. I have not sought to teach you any lessons or reveal anything to you about your motives. The contract stands and will be fulfilled.’ The man was horrified and pleaded for the contract to be annulled but the assassin only rose from his seat and left. For a long time the man waited with a feeling of dread and guilt that his former enemy would die and that would be responsible. He considered warning his former enemy or alerting the authorities but he feared that violating his contract with the assassin would only lead to his own death. Besides he knew nothing of when or how the assassination was to take place and doubted that anyone would take him seriously. Gradually, he convinced himself to doubt that the assassination action would ever occur.

“Decades passed. The man had all but forgotten that he had once hired an assassin. Only occasionally did he remember and wonder if the contract had been fulfilled — the man he had wanted killed had moved to another city years before — or if the assassin himself was still alive. Then one afternoon as the man sat in his wheelchair in the flowering garden of a nursing home an orderly brought him an envelope. In it was an obituary cut from a newspaper published in another city. The obituary stated that the man’s former enemy had died in his sleep at the age of eighty-five. Attached to the obituary with a paper clip was a yellowing copy of his contract with the assassin that had been stamped with the words ‘Fulfilled.’

The man lived another four years before dying one morning at the age of 90 following a long battle with kidney disease.”

I paused and put my hands on the desk to signal that I was done. I had added the specifics in the last sentence (borrowed from my grandfather’s own death) myself. Usually the man’s death was simply attributed to “natural causes” but I preferred to end the story with these details to add some prosaic realism.

“Thank you,” my client said, raising his head from the listening posture it had assumed: shoulders hunched, chin tucked, left ear cheated in my direction. “You tell the story well, as I knew you would.”

Detective Story #10—Terra Cognita

On days like today—lazy, quiet, empty days that settle like dust in corners—I can’t help but think of my teachers.

Professor Lu began the first lecture of his Business of Detection class by saying, “When you first open for business, you’ll have all the solitude you can bear. Waiting for that first client to come through the door is a unique form of loneliness. No matter how much confidence you have, no matter how carefully you have prepared, it will feel as though your success has become concentrated on the question of whether or not someone will discover a small point in space that only you know exists. You will feel powerless. Which is why this period of solitude and emptiness is the ideal time to start an investigation.”

The students, many of them still settling into their seats, fell into awkward silence. Professor Lu was elderly and during those first few classes many of us assumed (partly due to misinformation spread, with his encouragement, by former students) that he was a bit senile. “Investigating what?” some student asked, trying to conceal her irritation. Professor Lu looked perplexed. Later, after watching him deliver this same lecture many times, I came to see that this was all teacherly theater. After a pause he said: “Your next case, of course.” Slipping into the gentle condescension young people often use with the elderly, another student asked if it didn’t make more sense to wait for a specific client to arrive in order to avoid making assumptions. Professor Lu shrugged, saying, “What are you waiting for, exactly?” Then, in the tone of a man quoting himself, he went on: “All of life hangs together in once piece, everything is connected with everything else. Don’t you already have enough to get started? Don’t you always have enough to get started?”

His method was simple. We should sit in our bare offices and investigate whatever came to mind: “Spread your thoughts as wide as you can and dive as deep as possible.”

“Spread wide and dive deep,” a male student said in a lewd stage whisper.

Professor Lu didn’t acknowledge the joke but he didn’t ignore it either. With the timing of a comedian he held his delivery until the brief spell of tittering subsided. He showed no sign of disapproval or annoyance, only a gentle, subtle generosity that demonstrated his point: a skilled investigator allows for everything. “Start your investigation before your client comes through the door and you’ll already have some clues.”

He was right. There were many empty days when I first went into business, days when I had nothing but myself and the world around me to investigate—so that’s what I did. As if it were no small thing. At first, I stood at my casement windows and fixed my gaze towards Chao’s Restaurant across the street; watching the customers come and go, watching the passers-by pass by. It was too much. So I turned around and looked at my own office. I investigated everything that came to mind; every inch of the room around me. At least that’s how it felt at the time, though I’ve come to see how superficial those investigations actually were. Still, when my first client finally showed up—a middle-aged man trying to remember a pun he had thought of the previous day and then forgotten—I found that I already had some leads.

I also think of Professor Arkpafisto. I still listen to my recordings of her Art of Investigation lectures: “The unknown begins with the known. Think of old maps with large zones of empty space labeled Terra Incognita. Why in the world would a map include uncharted territory? What purpose can this serve? I can’t speak to what those old cartographers were thinking but I believe there is a beauty in marking the transition between the known and the unknown, in conceding that knowledge is bounded on all sides by frontiers of ignorance. Why does this matter to us? Because a detective is an explorer in the terra incognita of other people’s lives. When a new client first steps into your office you know nothing about them or their situation. Which begs the question: why do clients seek the assistance of someone who knows less about their problem than they do? Remember: people don’t hire detectives because of what they know—they hire us because we are comfortable navigating within the unknown. And that comfort only comes with practice.”

So, on empty days like this one, I chart the terra cognita of my office. I do this to prepare and to combat boredom—not only in the moment, but generally. If you see life and the world around you as a mystery, boredom is impossible. The flat, static, familiar objects you believe you already know become clues leading infinitely outward.

For a long time I worked with lists. I picked a spot in the office that felt unfamiliar and stood there, clipboard in hand, while I wrote out an inventory of every item in my office. I reflected on each item, considering where it came from, how long I had owned it, what purpose it served, until I became intrigued by some idea or question. Then I tried to follow that idea or question wherever it might lead, for as long as possible. It was rare for me to work through the entire inventory. Usually I became engrossed by a particular item. On one memorable occasion I got no further than my clipboard. Regardless, the process was time-consuming and resulted in some expensive phone bills and convoluted browser histories. But it worked: my metal filing cabinet lead me to the life of Sir Francis Bacon; my aspidistra directed me to a history of Japanese Bento boxes; the glass ashtray I keep as a decoration (smoking has never been allowed in my building) resulted in my reading a biography of Anton Chekhov; the armrests on my couch took me to the Levant States and the history of French Colonialism, while the upholstery pointed me to special effects in theatre. And, over the years, those same items have taken me in dozens of other directions.

Gradually, my interest shifted, became less literal. The inventory became an annotated list. Then I annotated my annotations. The objects were forgotten in favor of the list itself. Word-by-word, I consulted my reference books, noting each definition and listing synonyms. Using an X-Acto blade like a scalpel, I extracted each word, then sat at my desk and rearranged the cut-out slivers into poems and horoscopes. I made enlargements of each word so I could cut out individual letters to make new words; I made anagrams and palindromes. It wasn’t long before working with text began to feel too abstract and I shifted my focus back to objects. With the graphite pencils I had left over from my art course at the Academy, I made small line drawings on index cards of each object in my office. One day I laid these sketches side by side on my desk and stepped back to look at them. Laid out at random they looked like puzzle pieces and when I began to rearrange the cards to reflect the layout of the room, I saw that I had the beginnings of a map.

So now, on empty days, I draw maps of my office and annotate them. The maps have evolved—are evolving. The first maps were little more than floor plans with lists attached. As I’ve slowly taught myself to draw and paint, what began as an attempt to itemize a room and its contents has become an investigation in itself. With each map, I explore both the contents of the room and my experience of it. With pencil and ink I record the facts of the room and with brush and color I try to capture some of its essence.


Note: Three mottos hang on the walls of my office. The most prominent, which I have already mentioned several times, hangs directly behind me: “Life is a mystery and these are the clues.” The second also hangs on the wall behind me but it is much smaller and less prominently placed.  They are Professor Lu’s words: “It’s all one case.” The third (and longest) motto hangs on a small patch of the opposite side of the room, blocked from view by the office door whenever it is open. This motto, a quotation my brother found and had printed and framed, is just for me:

Mystery is in the morning, and mystery in the night, and the beauty of mystery
is everywhere; but still the truth remains, that mouth and purse must be filled.

—Mark Winsome

*       *      *

Acknowledgements: For making Nadie’s map a reality, my sincere thanks to Acey Toothypegs, beloved sister and dearest friend. Lovely as it is, this map only hints at her creative talents. Take a moment to explore Acey’s work at www.toothypegsart.com.

Detective Story #11 – The Complemental Op

“Can I count on your discretion?”

His first words. Even before he introduced himself.

Not that an introduction was necessary. I already knew his name — we all did. He was a legend. 

This was my first time seeing him up close. His figure was slight but he didn’t seem small. He seemed economical: absent any extraneous details. His pants were perfectly cut; pressed without looking too crisp. His cream colored shirt looked so comfortable I wanted to wear it. His shoes were worn but clean and well-maintained.

I tilted an open hand toward the two chairs in front of my desk, a vague gesture that seemed to imply he was welcome to sit in both chairs simultaneously. He took a step forward but didn’t sit down right away. Instead he stood between the chairs, the fingers of his left hand grazing padded upholstery. 

I nodded.
“I prefer vocal confirmation,” he said. “I’m sure you understand.”

He waited, his body not so much still as it was neutral, like a car: engine running, gears disengaged.

“Yes, of course,” I said in a clear, deliberate voice. “You can absolutely rely on my honoring the code of confidentiality between detective and client.”

“Thank you,” he said. Then his body flowed into motion, stepping between the chairs, then easing himself into the chair on the right. Standing still he had seemed light on his feet but in motion he was so graceful that his movements nearly escaped notice. 

“How can I help you?” I asked, sitting back in my chair.

“I’m working on the wrong case,” he said.

I resisted the urge to nod. Most clients need to feel that I understand their problem right away and a quick nod, even if it is a little premature, can help. This situation called for something different. He was a veteran detective. I had studied several of his cases, attended his lectures. No professional tricks: that was the best way to proceed.

I opened my mouth to ask what he meant but he stopped me by raising a finger.

“I have several active cases. High-priority, paying cases. I have operatives helping me, of course, but there is an expectation — a perfectly reasonable expectation — that I will attend to each investigation personally, if not fully. My operatives are not intended to act as surrogates for me, they are surrogates for my time. They allow me to conduct more investigations than would otherwise be possible. Recently, however, I have become distracted by what I have come to realize is another case, a non-paying case.”

Now I nodded. This was a situation I could understand. 

“Do you know why I became a detective?” He asked.
I shook my head and said nothing. I make it a rule to never answer rhetorical questions.

“I became a detective,” he said, “because I wanted to see the sadness in all things.”

I raised my eyebrows. Many detectives leave the profession because they find it too depressing. We spend most of our time in the double darkness of our clients’ uncertainty and our own. Guiding people through the mysteries in their lives can be disheartening. I had never heard a detective cite sadness as their reason for joining the profession. No wonder he was such a natural.

“When I started out I understood my motivations quite differently,” he continued after a pause. “Over time I’ve come to better understand my own impulses. I thought I was seeking truth and beauty and all that abstract, philosophical silliness. But all I really wanted was to find the sadness that lies at the heart of some things and covers the rest like a veneer. Sadness is the truth and beauty of this life: it is the vessel of beauty and the marrow of truth; what isn’t born of sadness ends in sadness — and there is much that is sad through and through.”

I nodded, noting the melancholy his words had triggered in me. Sadness was the core, the marrow, of life. How any times had I been on the verge of having this same, lovely realization?

“And how do you find it?” I asked.

The question seemed to surprise him and he smiled. 

“It’s about how you approach cases, how you approach witnesses and clues.” He paused, then went on: “I’m sure you’ve already figured this out — that’s why I’ve come to you — but many of our colleagues approach everyone and everything they come across with so-called skepticism. Everyone is a liar until their story checks out, every clue might have been planted until you can confirm to your satisfaction that it wasn’t, every suspect is guilty until you have determined that they’re not (and even then they’re still guilty of something else). Tiresome nonsense. Skepticism is a fine approach for science but it makes for a hollow way of life. And, like living, investigation is an art. Each case is a work of art. The crime, if there is one, is a work of art, and so is our investigation.”

“And you don’t see a place for skepticism in approaching a work of art?”

“Of course not.” He said. “Art requires openness, a willingness to overcome your point of view. Skepticism, or what people call skepticism, is usually a withdrawing into one’s point of view based on the assumption that what has worked in the past is all the truth there is to find. We’re all chauvinists and if art has any value it’s enabling us to see and understand another point of view. Too often skepticism is an extension of anxiety. We fear being wrong, so we hedge our bets by being skeptical of everything — which usually just means being unwilling to accept the value of a new idea. Frankly, what most detectives characterize as their skepticism is only cynicism. Challenging and questioning during an investigation should open doors not close them. The jaded, trust-no-one, hard-boiled persona is a product of ego and there’s no place for ego in this busines.”

“That’s true,” I nodded. “Is that why you’re here?” I asked trying to bring the conversation back into focus. “Because your ego has gotten in the way of a case?”

“Not exactly. At least, I don’t think so. I’m here because I want you to investigate me and how I’m investigating a case.”

I raised my eyebrows again.

“I can see potential confidentiality issues. Has your client given his or her authority for this — or would I be retained as one of your operatives?”

“It’s not like that,” he said. “As I said, this is a non-paying case. In truth, this is a case without a client. No one has hired me, I’m not being paid, so there is no expectation of confidentiality.”

I waited.

“You use silence well,” he said, smiling. “I’ll explain.”

He lowered his eyes for a moment. 

“There is a hot dog vendor in front of my building. He’s been there for years. We’ve been on a first name basis for most of that time. He’s friendly and amiable and moves easily between conversations with his various customers. I’ve spoken briefly with him about the weather, sports, politics — all the standard, casual topics. I’ve also spoken with him about life, death, spirituality, philosophy, aesthetics. We’ve had chats that lasted twenty seconds and others that lasted twenty minutes. Lately, however — for about the last six weeks — I’ve been unable to focus on my work because of an ongoing conversation I’ve been having with him. We talk for long periods of time, sometimes more than an hour. I order a hot dog, we talk, then I wait when other people order and he and I continue talking whenever there is a lull or whenever he is able to do his job while also conversing with me. Sometimes I do most of the talking but sometimes I just listen. Increasingly, time I should be spending on my investigations is spent talking to this hot dog vendor. Whenever our conversations end, I feel a real sense of regret and often find myself going over them in my head, rehashing what each of us has said and rehearsing what I’ll say next time.”

“And you say this has been a single, ongoing conversation for the past six weeks?”

“For the most part, yes.”

“May I ask what the conversation is about?”

“It doesn’t matter.” He said and shrugged. “Besides, you’ll find out soon enough.”

I agreed to take his case. We spent fifteen or twenty minutes discussing terms. He wanted to waive the customary rate reduction within the trade but I was unwilling to charge my full rate to a colleague. After some pleasant back and forth we agreed that I would receive part of my payment in future referrals.
I expected him to leave after we had signed the contracts but once he had returned my pen and clipboard he settled back into his chair.

“Before I leave, I have a request.”


“Whenever I work with another detective I ask them to tell me the Parable of the Assassin — I assume you know it?”

“Yes,” I said, “I’ve heard and read it many times. At the Academy, of course, and from my father before that.”

“Tell it to me,” he said, gently.

I took a deep breath and then began. 

Happy Bloomsday! ReJoyce!

Happy Bloomsday! What am I talking about? Bloomsday is a celebration of Ulysses, James Joyce‘s modern epic of everyday life, which takes place on June 16, 1904. Bloomsday is named for the novel’s main character, Leopold Bloom, a modern-day Odysseus who echoes that Homeric hero’s long journey home as he strolls the streets of Dublin.

Ulysses was published on 2 February 1922, Joyce’s birthday, but the impulse to celebrate the novel on June 16th seems to have been immediate (in a 1924 letter Joyce mentions “a group of people who observe what they call Bloom’s day—June 16”). In 1954 a group that included two Irish writers (novelist Flann O’Brien and poet Patrick Kavanagh) inaugurated the intention (if not the practice) of celebrating Bloomsday by retracing Bloom’s journey across Dublin and re-enacting events from the book—ultimately they settled for accomplishing the equally Joycean feat of getting drunk in a pub. In the ensuing decades, though, those intentions have been realized by Joyce admirers the world over in the form of festivals, walking tourspublic readings, radio broadcasts, informal gatherings, and countless tributes on social media.

The Bloomsday Project is my own contribution. Beginning with Episode 1 in 2006, I have paid tribute to Ulysses every Bloomsdayone chapter at a time, by posting an excerpt prefaced by my own commentary and observations. My goal is to share some of the pleasures of Ulysses with family, friends, and whoever else might find their way here. All of my previous Bloomsday posts can be found in the archives.

Sirens (Episode 11)

Ulysses is an uncommonly musical novel. Several characters, including Molly Bloom and her lover Blazes Boylan, are professional singers, while others, like Stephen Dedalus and his estranged father, Simon, are talented amateurs. Most of the rest, like Leopold Bloom himself, are music-lovers. This is only the beginning of musicality in Ulysses, however. The text itself is woven through with references and allusions to music of all kinds. More than three-hundred songs are listed in the index to Don Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated, a list that includes nursery rhymes and bawdy ballads; liturgical music and jingles; pop songs and rebel songs, earworms and arias. Some songs are used in passing, others recur as motifs or reveal a character’s state of mind (imagine how much more annoying that summer chart-topper would be if, like Bloom, you knew it was by your sexual rival). At least one song, a duet from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, subtly foreshadows the famous final line of the novel’s coda. The better we understand Joyce’s use of music in Ulysses, the deeper our understanding of the book as a whole. And nowhere in Ulysses is music more central than in Episode 11, where Joyce has set himself the seemingly impossible task of both writing about music and attempting to make music with his writing. Music is referenced throughout Ulysses but Episode 11 is music.

In Homer’s Odyssey the Sirens are two magical creatures who lure sailors to crash on the rocky shore of their small island by singing an irresistible song promising each listener gifts of wisdom and prophecy. Determined to hear the siren’s song without falling victim to it, Odysseus orders his men to tie him to the mast and plug their ears with wax so that he can listen while his men row on to safety.

In Ulysses, the Sirens episode is set in the Ormond Hotel bar, an actual location that was a well-known haunt for amateur musicians at the turn of the last century. The episode takes place around 4:00 PM, an hour that has particular importance to Bloom, who knows this is when his wife has arranged a rendezvous with her lover, Blazes Boylan. Bloom is surprised, then, when he sees Boylan’s car outside the Ormond Hotel, and decides to investigate under the guise of meeting with an acquaintance in the hotel saloon. Two barmaids, Miss Kennedy and Miss Douce, who idly flirt behind their reef-like bar, partially stand in for the sirens—though the closest they come to singing are peals of orgasmic laughter. (Miss Kennedy also makes a sort of music when she obliges a customer by snapping an elastic garter strap against her thigh). The singing is left to the male patrons, most significantly Simon Dedalus, Stephen’s father, a talented singer and raconteur who squanders his talents in pubs and bars while his family slips into poverty. Simon Dedalus and the other patrons take turns playing the piano and singing, while Leopold Bloom, ever the voyeur, looks on from his seat near the door, sometimes covertly joining in by strumming an elastic band of his own.

In Episode 7, Aeolus, Joyce displayed his tremendous command of language and rhetoric. Here he combines those skills with his understanding of music, which was formidable in its own right. Joyce was an accomplished tenor who considered a singing career (as Stephen Dedalus does in Episode 10). His knowledge of music was encylopedic and throughout his life he was known to give impromptu recitals at parties and literary events, accompanying himself on the guitar or piano. That same knowledge provides him with an arsenal of devices as he strives to make music with words.

Here are a few examples:

  • The episode, which Joyce described as a fugue, begins with what appears to be sixty-three lines of non-sequiturs, sentence fragments, and even meaningless strings of letters (“Imperthnthn thnthnthn”). In fact, as literary historian Kevin Birmingham writes in his excellent The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses, those sixty-three lines are “an overture, an introduction to the musical sounds and phrases that would be repeated, contextualized and vested with meaning over the course of the chapter.” In context they make more sense: “Imperthnthn thnthnthn”  proves to be a barman’s juvenile mockery of Miss Douce’s haughty promise to report his “impertinent insolence.”
  • Throughout the episode, Joyce insinuates musical terminology into his writing with puns like “play on her heartstrings pursestrings too” and “if he doesn’t conduct himself.” In describing Miss Kennedy’s mouth with the phrase “coral lips” he simultaneously evokes the siren’s coral reef and vocal (choral) music.
  • Joyce also plays with sentence structure to bring a sense of music to his writing. Consider this three-sentence paragraph, which critic Declan Kiberd likens to “finger exercises in musical scales, ringing changes on the same set of words”: Miss Kennedy sauntered sadly from bright light, twining a loose hair behind an ear. Sauntering sadly, gold no more, she twisted twined a hair. Sadly she twined in sauntering gold hair behind a curving ear.

So what temptation does Bloom, like Odysseus, experience without succumbing to its power? For the men and women in the Ormond Hotel bar, the camaraderie that comes of sharing songs is as important as the songs themselves. They are unified as much by the patter and banter surrounding the music as they are by each nostalgic, sentimental song. Even Bloom, the lurking outsider, experiences a moment of community in the section of Episode 11 I have chosen as this year’s excerpt. Bloom listens as Simon Dedalus performs a beautiful rendition of  M’Appari (“Come Thou Lost One”), an aria from Friedrich Von Flotow’s light opera Martha, in which Lionel, a successful farmer who has fallen in love with a Lady masquerading as a servant girl, laments her sudden disappearance. For nearly one-hundred lines, Joyce cuts between the text of the aria (Simon Dedalus sings a loosely translated version) and Bloom’s interior monologue as he responds to the words and music. The climax so moves Bloom that character, singer, and listener become entwined, an ecstatic state Joyce captures with the portmanteau word “Siopold!”—an exultant combination of Simon (singer), Lionel (character) and Leopold.

It is a powerful moment, one that has genuinely moved Bloom even though, true to his contemplative nature, he soon goes on to reflect: “Numbers it is. All music when you come to think. . . Do anything you like with figures juggling. . . And you think you’re listening to the etherial.” Still, music is important to Bloom. He takes an active part in his wife’s singing career and wonders why their daughter, Milly, has not inherited her parents’ discerning taste. As Kiberd suggests, “the beauty of good music is that you can hear it many times with added pleasure. . . At its best, it may evolve new forms, which work in surprising ways; but sentimental songs performed around the piano by tired men will not generate new meanings. These men want to retreat into a past which will allow them to forget the unhappy present.” When Bloom hears another talented singer (Ben Dollard) bringing another sentimental song (The Croppy Boy) to its tragic climax, he thinks it best to “get out before the end.” Tellingly, the song-forged trinity of performer-character-listener embodied by the one-line exclamation “Siopold!” has been replaced by passing uses of “Lionelleopold” and “Simonlionel”—a lingering trace of the character, Lionel, remains in both men but the connection between singer and listener has vanished. For Bloom, the community in the Ormond Hotel bar is an enticing trap that uses fetishizing the emotional power of music as a lure. “Better give way only half way,” he decides. So Bloom leaves the Ormond to continue his journey across Dublin having enjoyed some beautiful singing without falling victim to its charms. Outside, though, he makes a little music of his own, letting loose a noisy fart (“Pprrpffrrppffff“)—a residual echo (or, perhaps, a distillation) of the songs he heard in the Ormond.

Below is this year’s excerpt (the Siopold section described above). As usual, I’ve also included an audio clip of the excerpt from the 1982 RTÉ full-cast production of Ulysses. Given the musicality on display in the writing, more than ever I would encourage readers to play the clip and follow along.

Each graceful look

First night when first I saw her at Mat Dillon’s in Terenure. Yellow, black lace she wore. Musical chairs. We two the last. Fate. After her. Fate.

Round and round slow. Quick round. We two. All looked. Halt. Down she sat. All ousted looked. Lips laughing. Yellow knees.

Charmed my eye

Singing. Waiting she sang. I turned her music. Full voice of perfume of what perfume does your lilactrees. Bosom I saw, both full, throat warbling. First I saw. She thanked me. Why did she me? Fate. Spanishy eyes. Under a peartree alone patio this hour in old Madrid one side in shadow Dolores shedolores. At me. Luring. Ah, alluring.

Martha! Ah, Martha!

Quitting all languor Lionel cried in grief, in cry of passion dominant to love to return with deepening yet with rising chords of harmony. In cry of lionel loneliness that she should know, must martha feel. For only her he waited. Where? Here there try there here all try where. Somewhere.

Co-ome, thou lost one!
     Co-ome, thou dear one!

Alone. One love. One hope. One comfort me. Martha, chestnote, return!


It soared, a bird, it held its flight, a swift pure cry, soar silver orb it leaped serene, speeding, sustained, to come, don’t spin it out too long long breath he breath long life, soaring high, high resplendent, aflame, crowned, high in the effulgence symbolistic, high, of the etherial bosom, high, of the high vast irradiation everywhere all soaring all around about the all, the endlessnessnessness…

To me!



Come. Well sung. All clapped. She ought to. Come. To me, to him, to her, you too, me, us.

—Bravo! Clapclap. Good man, Simon. Clappyclapclap. Encore! Clapclipclap clap. Sound as a bell. Bravo, Simon! Clapclopclap. Encore, enclap, said, cried, clapped all, Ben Dollard, Lydia Douce, George Lidwell, Pat, Mina Kennedy, two gentlemen with two tankards, Cowley, first gent with tank and bronze miss Douce and gold Miss Mina.

Happy Bloomsday! ReJoyce!

Happy Bloomsday! What am I talking about? Bloomsday is a worldwide celebration of Ulysses, James Joyce’s epic novel of everyday life which takes place on a single day: June 16, 1904. Ulysses, though set in 20th century Dublin, is loosely modeled on Homer’s Odyssey.

Around the world Joyce enthusiasts (and those willing to feign interest in order to get a free drink) attend readings, dramatizations, pub crawls, and other Ulysses-related events held around the world. Others stay at home to fix meals described in the book or simply read their favoite passages. The Bloomsday Project is my own small contribution to the celebration: every June 16th, one chapter per year (what was I thinking?!), I post an excerpt prefaced by some of my own observations in an attempt to share the pleasures of Ulysses with family, friends, and whoever else might find their way here.

A fuller explanation of Bloomsday and previous Bloomsday posts can be found in the archives. Enjoy!


The Blooming Idiot

The Wandering Rocks (Chapter 10)

Unlike the other episodes in Ulysses, Chapter 10 (The Wandering Rocks) finds Joyce diverging significantly from the pattern of correspondences to Homer’s Odyssey. The Homeric basis for the episode is merely this: Odysseus is warned to avoid the Wandering Rocks because they are impossible to navigate without divine assistance, so he does. The Wandering Rocks takes place between 3:00 – 4:00 PM and is comprised of nineteen overlapping sections that feature virtually every character in the book, with accounts of two authority figures crossing Dublin acting as a frame: Father Conmee, a high-ranking Church official opens the chapter, while the Viceroy (the embodiment of English authority in colonial Ireland) closes it.

The range of characters in these sections is broad and includes our protagonists, Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, but also minor characters such as, to name but a few, Blazes Boylan (Molly Bloom’s would-be lover), Boylan’s secretary Miss Dunne, Stephen’s musically named music teacher Almidano Artifoni, and the young son of Paddy Dignam, whose funeral provided the setting of chapter 6 (Hades). The Wandering Rocks is not, however, strictly linear. In each section the narrative circles back on itself, referencing previous sections and foreshadowing future ones to locate each scene in the overall chronology of the chapter. We repeatedly glimpse, for instance, the moment Molly Bloom’s arm appears from her bedroom window to toss a coin to a begging sailor, and trace the progress of five sandwich-board-men, each bearing a different letter as they advertise H.E.L.Y.’S stationary store by walking together through the streets.

What do we make of this odd jigsaw of a chapter? Most often the Wandering Rocks is described by critics as a labyrinth or maze. This image certainly speaks to the experience of reading the chapter, with all its twists and turns, but critics tend to use the terms “labyrinth” and “maze” interchangeably, when there is actually an essential difference between the two. A labyrinth leads only (and inevitably) towards its own center, while a maze is designed to disorient, confuse, and trap (or, at least, delay) those who navigate it with false leads and dead-ends. When we solve a maze we do not reach its center, we emerge on the other side.

So, what has Joyce created here, a labyrinth or a maze? While we know labyrinths are important to Joyce (Stephen takes his last name from Daedalus, the inventor of the labyrinth) and while the chapter’s placement (chapter 10 of 18) makes it a center of sorts, the content of the chapter suggests the less determined structure of a maze. After spending much of the first eight episodes making us intimately familiar with Bloom and Stephen, Joyce pulls back to remind us that they are actually of little or no significance in the world they occupy. Since fiction typically offers an ordered vision of life where the importance of each character is consistent and clear, this shift is jarring. At the same time, this mixed sense of scale should be familiar to most of us: it is the maze of modern life. “Why is it all so complicated?” Irish critic Declan Kiberd asks in his chapter on the Wandering Rocks in Ulysses & Us. Because, he answers, “Joyce seeks to capture not just the openness but also the randomness of life, something which is almost impossible to do in a neat narrative.”

In The Faraway Nearby, her extended meditation on the value of storytelling, essayist Rebecca Solnit compares books to labyrinths: “A labyrinth is an ancient device that compresses a journey into a small space, winds up a path like thread on a spool. It contains beginning, confusion, perseverance, arrival, and return.” In this sense all books are certainly labyrinths: constructs designed to distract us until we arrive where their designers want us to go. Yet Solnit’s description of mazes sounds more like Ulysses: “a maze . . . has not one convoluted way but many ways and often no center, so that wandering has no cease or at least no definitive conclusion. A maze is a conversation.” So, perhaps Ulysses is both labyrinth and maze. “The world,” wrote philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, “is everything that is the case.” Books are not so limited. Like the puns Joyce loved, a book can be two (or more) things at once. After all, aren’t the best books—the books we return to again and again—both labyrinths and mazes? For while, like a labyrinth, a great book can lead us somewhere new; a great book can also, like a maze, offer us the freedom to become lost.

* * *

Excerpting Ulysses is never easy but excerpting a chapter that many see as a miniature of the novel as a whole is especially frustrating. How to capture its complex, overlapping interconnections? Ultimately, I settled on the final section (in its entirety) simply because it includes more characters than any other. Beginning with a straightforward account of the Viceroy and his wife (Earl and Lady Dudley) passing, king-like, across the chessboard that is Dublin, Joyce pointedly shows no interest in depicting the inner-life of these two figures. Instead, he gives us a litany of the ordinary people they pass in their carriage, each of whom reacts (or, mostly, doesn’t) to these high-ranking personages in different ways. As always, I encourage you to read along to the RTE full-cast performance of the excerpt provided below.

Until next year, then, when we look at the music-drenched Episode 10 (Sirens), I bid you adieu and wish you a happy Bloomsday!


William Humble, earl of Dudley, and lady Dudley, accompanied by lieutenantcolonel Heseltine, drove out after luncheon from the viceregal lodge. In the following carriage were the honourable Mrs Paget, Miss de Courcy and the honourable Gerald Ward A.D.C. in attendance.

The cavalcade passed out by the lower gate of Phoenix park saluted by obsequious policemen and proceeded past Kingsbridge along the northern quays. The viceroy was most cordially greeted on his way through the metropolis. At Bloody bridge Mr Thomas Kernan beyond the river greeted him vainly from afar Between Queen’s and Whitworth bridges lord Dudley’s viceregal carriages passed and were unsaluted by Mr Dudley White, B. L., M. A., who stood on Arran quay outside Mrs M. E. White’s, the pawnbroker’s, at the corner of Arran street west stroking his nose with his forefinger, undecided whether he should arrive at Phibsborough more quickly by a triple change of tram or by hailing a car or on foot through Smithfield, Constitution hill and Broadstone terminus. In the porch of Four Courts Richie Goulding with the costbag of Goulding, Collis and Ward saw him with surprise. Past Richmond bridge at the doorstep of the office of Reuben J Dodd, solicitor, agent for the Patriotic Insurance Company, an elderly female about to enter changed her plan and retracing her steps by King’s windows smiled credulously on the representative of His Majesty. From its sluice in Wood quay wall under Tom Devan’s office Poddle river hung out in fealty a tongue of liquid sewage. Above the crossblind of the Ormond hotel, gold by bronze, Miss Kennedy’s head by Miss Douce’s head watched and admired. On Ormond quay Mr Simon Dedalus, steering his way from the greenhouse for the subsheriff’s office, stood still in midstreet and brought his hat low. His Excellency graciously returned Mr Dedalus’ greeting. From Cahill’s corner the reverend Hugh C. Love, M.A., made obeisance unperceived, mindful of lords deputies whose hands benignant had held of yore rich advowsons. On Grattan bridge Lenehan and M’Coy, taking leave of each other, watched the carriages go by. Passing by Roger Greene’s office and Dollard’s big red printinghouse Gerty MacDowell, carrying the Catesby’s cork lino letters for her father who was laid up, knew by the style it was the lord and lady lieutenant but she couldn’t see what Her Excellency had on because the tram and Spring’s big yellow furniture van had to stop in front of her on account of its being the lord lieutenant. Beyond Lundy Foot’s from the shaded door of Kavanagh’s winerooms John Wyse Nolan smiled with unseen coldness towards the lord lieutenantgeneral and general governor of Ireland. The Right Honourable William Humble, earl of Dudley, G. C. V. O., passed Micky Anderson’s all times ticking watches and Henry and James’s wax smartsuited freshcheeked models, the gentleman Henry, dernier cri James. Over against Dame gate Tom Rochford and Nosey Flynn watched the approach of the cavalcade. Tom Rochford, seeing the eyes of lady Dudley fixed on him, took his thumbs quickly out of the pockets of his claret waistcoat and doffed his cap to her. A charming soubrette, great Marie Kendall, with dauby cheeks and lifted skirt smiled daubily from her poster upon William Humble, earl of Dudley, and upon lieutenantcolonel H. G. Heseltine, and also upon the honourable Gerald Ward A. D. C. From the window of the D. B. C. Buck Mulligan gaily, and Haines gravely, gazed down on the viceregal equipage over the shoulders of eager guests, whose mass of forms darkened the chessboard whereon John Howard Parnell looked intently. In Fownes’s street Dilly Dedalus, straining her sight upward from Chardenal’s first French primer, saw sunshades spanned and wheelspokes spinning in the glare. John Henry Menton, filling the doorway of Commercial Buildings, stared from winebig oyster eyes, holding a fat gold hunter watch not looked at in his fat left hand not feeling it. Where the foreleg of King Billy’s horse pawed the air Mrs Breen plucked her hastening husband back from under the hoofs of the outriders. She shouted in his ear the tidings. Understanding, he shifted his tomes to his left breast and saluted the second carriage. The honourable Gerald Ward A.D.C., agreeably surprised, made haste to reply. At Ponsonby’s corner a jaded white flagon H. halted and four tallhatted white flagons halted behind him, E.L.Y’S, while outriders pranced past and carriages. Opposite Pigott’s music warerooms Mr Denis J Maginni, professor of dancing &c, gaily apparelled, gravely walked, outpassed by a viceroy and unobserved. By the provost’s wall came jauntily Blazes Boylan, stepping in tan shoes and socks with skyblue clocks to the refrain of My girl’s a Yorkshire girl.
Blazes Boylan presented to the leaders’ skyblue frontlets and high action a skyblue tie, a widebrimmed straw hat at a rakish angle and a suit of indigo serge. His hands in his jacket pockets forgot to salute but he offered to the three ladies the bold admiration of his eyes and the red flower between his lips. As they drove along Nassau street His Excellency drew the attention of his bowing consort to the programme of music which was being discoursed in College park. Unseen brazen highland laddies blared and drumthumped after the cortège:

But though she’s a factory lass
And wears no fancy clothes.
Yet I’ve a sort of a
Yorkshire relish for
My little Yorkshire rose.

Thither of the wall the quartermile flat handicappers, M. C. Green, H. Shrift, T. M. Patey, C. Scaife, J. B. Jeffs, G. N. Morphy, F. Stevenson, C. Adderly and W. C. Huggard, started in pursuit. Striding past Finn’s hotel Cashel Boyle O’Connor Fitzmaurice Tisdall Farrell stared through a fierce eyeglass across the carriages at the head of Mr M. E. Solomons in the window of the Austro-Hungarian viceconsulate. Deep in Leinster street by Trinity’s postern a loyal king’s man, Hornblower, touched his tallyho cap. As the glossy horses pranced by Merrion square Master Patrick Aloysius Dignam, waiting, saw salutes being given to the gent with the topper and raised also his new black cap with fingers greased by porksteak paper. His collar too sprang up. The viceroy, on his way to inaugurate the Mirus bazaar in aid of funds for Mercer’s hospital, drove with his following towards Lower Mount street. He passed a blind stripling opposite Broadbent’s. In Lower Mount street a pedestrian in a brown macintosh, eating dry bread, passed swiftly and unscathed across the viceroy’s path. At the Royal Canal bridge, from his hoarding, Mr Eugene Stratton, his blub lips agrin, bade all comers welcome to Pembroke township. At Haddington road corner two sanded women halted themselves, an umbrella and a bag in which eleven cockles rolled to view with wonder the lord mayor and lady mayoress without his golden chain. On Northumberland and Lansdowne roads His Excellency acknowledged punctually salutes from rare male walkers, the salute of two small schoolboys at the garden gate of the house said to have been admired by the late queen when visiting the Irish capital with her husband, the prince consort, in 1849 and the salute of Almidano Artifoni’s sturdy trousers swallowed by a closing door.


Detective Story #8 – Shavasana

I was tired. It had been a long day—a good day, but long. I sat at my desk and listened to the disembodied murmur of the instructor’s voice coming through the wall from the yoga studio next door. I couldn’t hear the words but I recognized the tone: a slow, loose chant to ease a roomful of pupils through the intricacies of Shavasana, their final position. Corpse pose. My lethargy deepened. Chin in palm, I gazed out the window at dimming dusklight between buildings.

Corpse pose. I stood up behind my desk, grimacing with the pleasure of stretching my legs and straightening my back. I slid the empty client’s chair into the far corner, noting, for the hundredth time, that its turquoise upholstery was wearing thin and needed to be replaced. I returned to the center of the room, slid off my clogs, and knelt down on the carpet, slowly capsizing onto my back. I lay there, arms and legs at 45-degree angles, looking up at the texture of the ceiling.

I closed my eyes, letting the sounds of burgeoning night-life recede until only the instructor’s voice remained, audible but indiscernible. I knew the words were irrelevant, merely a vessel for her hushed, lulling cadence—and even that didn’t matter. All that mattered was sinking into myself, settling into the floor below, feeling the fullness of the moment that would never end. Inhaling quiet, exhaling quietude. The muffled murmur droned on, quieter now, as I drifted loose: adrift and drifting, drifty; floating slow, unruffled and calm in a sea of thought; not asleep, not awake, dusk of mind . . .

Above me, behind me, back in the world I heard I heard three quick, staccato knocks followed by silence, then the slow creak of the door. Even with eyes closed I knew who it was. There were two steps, then a pause. I could hear his wry smile as he said:  “Hey, little sister. Asleep on the job again?”

I squinted my lips into a smile and stayed as I was.

“Hello,” I said, “was I expecting you . . .?”
“Not for me to say, really. But yes: this is an impromptu visit. Bad time?”
“Not at all . . .”
“Is this corpse pose or are you just being weird?”
“A little of both . . .” I was in a place where everything I said seemed to end in ellipses.

I heard shifting, two thuds, a rustle, a creak that I could feel through the floorboards beneath my head and shoulders, then a faint brushing against my hair as he settled on the floor, the top of his head touching mine.

We lay there for awhile, joined at the head like two stray figures cut from a paper doll chain. The voice stopped. There was a moment of silence, a whispered chorus of Namastes, then the resumption of routine as the pupils rolled up their mats and filtered into the hall, their entangled words becoming briefly distinct, then fading down the stairwell.

Then my brother and I savored the shared silence.

” . . .”
” . . .”
” . . .”
” . . .”
” . . .”
” . . .”

I said, “So, what brings you here?”
“Oh, nothing in particular. Been running errands and thought I’d drop in.”

I rubbed my closed eyes and enjoyed the slow motion fireworks of bursting color it created behind my eyelids.

“I hear you’re working on a case for dad,” he said.
“I am. A suicide motive case.”
“No note?” He asked.
“There was a note. It said ‘This is easier’ and nothing else.”
“Sounds like an open-and-shut-case to me. Who can argue with that?”
“You know clients—it’s always about the details; the specifics. Easier than what?”

He sighed. Or exhaled. Or maybe grunted. It could be difficult to tell with him sometimes.

“Can I ask you a question?”
“Sure,” I said, “You can even ask me another one.”

An old family joke. He let it pass.

“Do you ever wish you had bigger cases; investigations like the ones detectives get in books and movies?”

It wasn’t his usual sort of question. It was more like a question my father would ask, only without my father’s judgmental tone.

“Why do you ask?”
“I’m teaching my course on detective fiction again this semester and I was struck by how different the cases are in the novels we read:  adultery, blackmail, kidnapping, murder . . .”
“I handle adultery cases.”
“Sort of,” he said.

Even with closed eyes and wedges of color pulsing through my personal darkness I could see the expression on his face. It said: You handle adultery cases the way someone building a sandcastle handles the sea.

“I’m not judging, Nadie. Not at all.”
“I know.”
“I’m genuinely curious. Do you ever wish your cases were bigger or more dramatic or do you prefer the minutiae?”

Part of the answer was obvious—and I knew he already knew what my answer would be—but the question was still worth considering. So I considered it until he answered for me:

“I suppose the answer is written on the wall behind your desk. All your cases, no matter how small they may seem, are just clues in the biggest case of all. And I see the truth in that—I always have. Life is a crime—for lack of a better word—that is perpetually in progress. The clues are infinite and forever compounding. There is no way to truly solve the mystery you have set for yourself because it keeps growing to encompass everything that happens everywhere and all the time—including your own efforts. Your investigation is always part of the mystery, just another clue.”

I laughed and felt the hair at the tops of our heads mingle.

“You missed your calling,” I said.
“I always do. Missing callings is my calling.”
I chuckled knowingly. He’d never summed himself up quite so well before.
“Still,” I said, “I’m impressed. I’ve been trying to explain this to dad for years.”
“I struggle with the same issue as a teacher of literature,” he said. “Percy Shelley makes this argument that all of literature is one long text that is forever in progress. That text, it seems to me, is the closest thing we have to an instruction manual for life—and it’s impossible to read it all. I’ve studied and taught the subject for years and have only become more acutely aware of how little I’ve read; how much I’ve forgotten of what I have read. And every day there are new books. But you’ve set yourself the even larger task of trying to solve the mystery that all of those books are struggling to address . . .”

I laughed again.

“You make it sound a little pointless.”
“I make it sound a lot pointless. Because it is. Utterly. Still worth trying, though. ‘A man’s reach should exceed his grasp’ and all that.”

One of his favorite quotations. Browning. Or what’s a heaven for?

“I think I might have a mystery for you,” he said.
“Really?” I was so surprised I almost opened my eyes.
“It’s been with me for many years; I’ve tried to live with it, tried to figure it out but I can’t seem to make any progress. Maybe you’ll have more luck.”
“I’ll do my best . . .”
“I guess it’s really two mysteries. Possibly more.”
“Mysteries do have a tendency to multiply.”
“They do, don’t they?”

He didn’t speak for a second, so I prompted him:

“And the first mystery?”
“I don’t know what the first mystery is,” he said, “I know it’s there, unsolved, unanswered, generating clues . . . But I have no idea what it is.”

I made a mental note on an imaginary pad: ?

Then I said: “The first mystery is to figure out what your mystery is.”
“Yes,” he said. His voice had grown tight and raspy.

A clock ticked. Traffic whirred. Night fell.

“Well,” I said, still not moving, still not opening my eyes, “What are the clues?”

Detective Story #7 — In Other Words

My first thought was that she had made a mistake.

She walked into my office at 9:30 on a Tuesday morning but she was dressed for a Saturday night. Her hair was bleachy blonde, chin length and messy in that cultivated way that takes time and effort. She was the second client I’d had in the last month who was dressed all in black: black tights, black mini-skirt, black low-heel pumps; a black waistcoat cut in a fancifully military style (complete with epaulettes) that parted to reveal a black top with black sequins across the top. It was a real accomplishment matching that much black clothing, especially in a way that withstood the unforgiving light of morning. Even more impressive, her top was satin and so far as I could see, without a single wrinkle.

Many believe that the basic unit of detective work is being able to observe a person and make deductions about their character based on what they are wearing or how they behave. There is no question that this is a valuable skill. Sometimes, though, it is more useful to ignore appearances because they reveal nothing of value. Like beauty, style and fashion can be great deceivers. They are too easily seen to be truly observed.

Sometimes, the first clue we come across only makes sense later on, when we have more information. So, just as the best way to remember a word or name we have failed to call to mind during conversation is to continue talking until, through the natural channels of speech and thought, it quietly returns to us, the best practice with a clue that commands too much attention without yielding insight is to ignore it until other clues arrive to provide context.

As it turned out, however, this wasn’t a case of lacking the information to understand an important clue. Instead, I had made the equally common mistake of assigning too much importance to the first clue I happened to come across. In fact, once she explained her case, I realized it had been a mistake to attach any importance at all to her hair, clothes, and make-up.

“I want you to find the perfect word to describe this feeling I’ve been having,” she said once she had settled into the chair opposite my desk.

I sat back and thought for awhile.

“This poses an interesting challenge,” I said, “since first you’ll have to describe to me how you feel . . .”
“Totally,” she said, drawing out the middle of the word so it became a groan.
“Let’s start by trying to set some parameters for what sort of word you’re hoping I’ll find.”
“Okay,” she said, nodding.
“First off, do you want an English word or would something from another language work as well?”
“Well, I’d love it if you could find an English word. Even a phrase would be fine. But I’m guessing it will have to be a foreign word or phrase.”
“German is probably our best bet, then,” I said, making a note.
“Maybe,” she said slowly, tilting her head to follow her eyebrows in a leftward gesture of skepticism.
“German,” I ventured, “is a language that seems to specialize in words meant to describe highly specific feelings and mental states.’
“Oh, totally,” she said nodding so vigorously that the sequins on her dress gave a couple sparkly ripples. “I’m just skeptical because I’ve spent a ton of time looking at German words for just that reason.”
“So you’ve already been researching this for awhile?”
“At least a year.”
“Any language will do,” I said absently as I made a note.
“Well, I’d like to steer clear of Klingon,” she said.
The joke took a second to register before I laughed.
“Fair enough,” I said as I added several new sheets of paper to my clipboard and leaned back in my chair. “So: tell me about this feeling . . .”
“I don’t feel this way all the time,” she said, “but it is a very specific state of mind that I experience on a regular basis — maybe two or three days out of every week?”

I nodded, made another note.

“For the most part I am not really an upbeat sort of person. Even when I was a little girl I’d have extended periods of sadness, or just feel this sort of mild hopelessness all the time. My doctor says I’m probably dysthymic but I’m not medicated or anything. I haven’t even gone to a psychiatrist.”

She paused and I wrote some more, making my best guess at how to spell dysthymic.

“But for the last two years I’ve had these bursts of feeling that are totally different from my usual range of moods. Nothing super-weird . . . Just different and unexpected.”

“And how would you characterize this feeling?”

She paused, sighed, then gave a little closed-mouth chuckle.

“I’ve tried to describe this so many times. To friends. To family. In emails. In my diary. I keep hoping I’ll stumble across the perfect word but . . .” she paused, took a meditative breath, then went on: “For days, even weeks, at a time I will go along feeling as though I am on the verge of something new—like I’m standing at a door with my fingers twisting the doorknob until I can feel the . . . the . . .” she frowned and rolled her eyes, turning an imaginary knob with her fingers as she searched for the right word, “the . . . tumbler gives way. Is that right: tumbler?”

“I think you mean latch,” I said, “the part that retracts. Locks have tumblers.”
“Okay: like I’m at a door, and I’ve twisted the knob until the latch is completely retracted and I can feel the door hanging free in the doorway and the only thing keeping it closed is me — not by choice, only because in that final instant of turning the knob to open the door I am actually holding it closed. Do you know what I mean? Like it’s one of those loose old doors that creaks open unless it’s all the way closed with the latch snapped in place —but once you twist the knob the only reason the door stays closed is because you’re still holding the knob. Like it’s floating there on hinges held in place by your hand. Does that make sense?”

It did, so I nodded and said, “Would you describe this as a positive feeling?”
“Yes, definitely,” and her sequins rippled some more, “My feelings about what’s on the other side of the door are really positive. Anticipation doesn’t quite cover it. I have this feeling of hope, even euphoria—or maybe bliss is a better word. My feelings tend to shift.”
“A little, sometimes. But this is where the door analogy kind of breaks down. I’m totally aware that I can’t control when the door opens.”

She frowned again and scrunched up her nose. She tugged at her waistcoat.

“That’s not right either,” she said, “I know I can’t control when the moment is right to open the door . . . I guess it’s like when you’re standing in front of an elevator door and you know the elevator is there but you just have to wait a second or two longer until the doors actually open.”

She thought for a moment, then smiled and said, “I like that. If you can find a word for when someone is just waiting for the doors to an elevator that has already arrived to open, that would work for me.”

I tugged at my ear and nodded.

She said, “But that part about turning the doorknob is still important. The door is there and I can hear what’s coming on the other side, maybe even see some light coming through the cracks and gaps, but it hasn’t arrived yet, so even though I can turn the knob and . . . and feel the freedom of the door, there’s just no way to open it until the other side is ready.”

Feeling the freedom of the door. I knew that freedom—or a detective’s version of it: that feeling that I was on the edge of some vital new clue that would deepen not only my understanding of whatever small mystery I was working on, but also the larger mystery that permeates everything. Sometimes I was convinced such moments were what I loved most about being a detective. Those instants before a key piece of information arrives, when the next clue could be anything . . .

“Anyway,” she said, “I don’t want to get fixated on this door analogy. People do that, you know: get hung up on analogies because they help us think through problems that feel too abstract —or that we just don’t understand well enough. The problem is we get stuck on the particulars of the analogy; like some sort of fetish. Which is why I want a word for this feeling of mine.”
“One could argue that words are just a sort of analogy,” I said.
“Yes, I’ve thought of that,” she nodded quickly, “but words become less particular the more we use them. That’s what a cliche is, if you think about it: an analogy that works so well people start using it like a word. There are even some words that are basically just cliches, analogies we don’t even notice anymore. Even the word metaphor: it comes from the Greek word for transport. The idea is that we transport a word or phrase from one context to another but no one thinks about transport when they talk about metaphors — except maybe in Greece where the word metaphor is on the side of moving trucks.”
“So, what,” I asked, “do you hope to accomplish by finding a word for this feeling you’ve described? Do you hope that the word will help you control the feeling or diminish it in some way? Do you hope knowing the word will help make that elevator arrive a little faster?”
“Oh, no, nothing like that. That all sounds really superstitious to me. I’m just trying to be practical. I want to express what I’m feeling as precisely as possible, even if it sends people to the dictionary.”
“In other words, you’d like to be able to shorten the length of conversations like this one?”

Detective Story #6 — Solving and Dissolving

After I had explained the outcome of my investigation and she had thanked me and handed over her last payment, she surprised me. Rather than getting up and shaking my hand, like most people do at this point, she sat back and exhaled at some length. Then she dipped her head toward her lap for a moment before raising it again to look at me. She had the most rueful hazel eyes.

“What is the best solution you’ve ever found for a mystery?” she asked.

Clients often ask questions like this, though usually not at the end of an investigation and usually not in these words. I asked what she meant by “best” though the real question was what she meant by “solution.”

She pondered my question as she smoothed the plastic lid along the lip of her coffee cup. Then she looked at me and shifted the cup between hands that made the shape of a heart in her lap.

“I suppose I meant cleverest,” she answered, “but what I really mean is most satisfying.” She paused for a second and then tilted her eyebrows in a self-deprecatory way and said, “I find cleverness satisfying—but maybe you don’t?”

I chuckled and said, “Well, I’m as susceptible to being pleased with my own cleverness as anyone else but when it comes to my work you’re right: what pleases me most is an answer that the client finds useful even if it isn’t what she—or he—was expecting.”

That’s my preferred word: answer. Solution implies that something has been solved, that the mystery has been placed in some sort of solution that dissolves all the complications and questions until what remains is the clean, shiny truth that was at the core of the mystery all along. An answer is different; an answer does not imply exclusivity; an answer does not mean the death of the mystery. There is always another answer—and more questions. Answers are only the next level of question.

Answers are the questions that questions ask.

“I suppose you can’t share any examples,” she said. “Confidentiality . . .”
“It depends on the case . . . And with some of the cases where the client is especially happy with the results I’ll ask permission to share the details with potential clients.”
“So, you do have some favorites?”
“I’m thinking of one case in particular.”

She pressed at the plastic lid on the paper cup in her hearted hands.

“I’d love to hear about it,” she said. “I find your work fascinating.”
“I’m lucky to be able to do something I love, that speaks to the core of my being.”

At that her eyes turned sad even as they continued to glow hazel in the slanting morning light.

“Awhile back a man came to me with an unusual request. He had purchased a book at a second-hand shop; a slender little volume bound in calfskin. He wanted me to locate the previous owner—not because of the book itself (a novel by a little-known writer published in the 1920s) and not because of any visible markings in the book. There were no visible markings. No marginalia, no underlined passages, no bookplate, no business card or receipt used as a bookmark, no jottings on the endpapers . . . Nothing like that. But there was one distinctive trace of the previous owner—or of one particular previous owner since such an old book had probably been owned by more than one person over the years.”

I paused to build some suspense then asked if she could guess what it was. She didn’t really think about it, simply shook her head.

“The book smelled incredible. Its pages were permeated with the most delectable aroma. It was intoxicating. Not the delicate, wafting scent of perfume but the rich, smoky luster of incense. My client was obsessed with finding the origin of the scent.”

Then I sketched out the phases of the investigation: first, the bookseller who had told my client over the phone that he had no memory of the book but who recognized the aroma when I visited his shop in person, telling me it was similar to several others he had purchased from a particular book scout months earlier. Then the book scout it took me a couple weeks to find, tracking him through several bookshops and a number of old addresses to a basement apartment where he insisted I give him gas money for his motor-scooter in exchange for the name of the agency that handled the estate sale where he bought the book as part of a lot. Finally, the estate agent who could only tell me that the lot of books purchased by the scout was not from a particular estate but had been bundled by a dealer who had since died.

“I was literally at a dead-end, so I decided to review the case to see if there was another angle of approach. I re-read the book, re-checked my notes, went back over my conversation with the client . . . So often the answer to the mystery is nestled somewhere in that original conversation.”


“It’s like when someone asks for your advice,” I shrugged, “Most of the time the answer is in the way they frame the question. People know what they should do but they’re reluctant or they want reassurance.”
“And was that the case here?”
“It was,” I nodded. “I realized the answer had been there the entire time. It was obvious and the client understood that once I told him.”

I waited until she asked what it was.

“It doesn’t matter.”

She frowned.

“That was the answer,” I said, “That’s what he needed to hear and that’s what I told him: it doesn’t matter.”